A tale of recovery: my path from traumatized to healer

I had lunch a few weeks ago with John, someone I’ve known for about 12 years but haven’t seen much in recent years. He commented that I am a very different person now from when he met me, and that would not be apparent to people who hadn’t known me that long.

When we met in 2004 (I think), I seemed troubled to him, and I was. John said that now, I appear to be happy and “like a fountain” (which I love), and he was curious about that.

Other people have said I’ve changed more than anyone they know. Well, that’s probably because I was starting from a more troubled place than most.

So I’m reviewing my path in search of insights to share. This is for you, John, and I know that some of you are interested in recovery from trauma, and some of you are interested in personal growth, so this is for you too. Continue reading

Link

Trauma never goes completely away

My friend Spike shared a link to this New York Times article on Facebook, and since trauma and recovery are themes on this blog, I thought I’d share it here. The author, a psychiatrist, writes about how trauma and grief never go completely away.

Can’t get over it? You may now stop trying and believing that you have to or that something is wrong with you because you haven’t or can’t.

My mother’s knee-jerk reaction, “Shouldn’t I be over this by now?” is very common. There is a rush to normal in many of us that closes us off, not only to the depth of our own suffering but also, as a consequence, to the suffering of others….

The reflexive rush to normal is counterproductive. In the attempt to fit in, to be normal, the traumatized person (and this is most of us) feels estranged.

Mr. Rogers and 5 random acts of kindness for each person who died

This has been quoted on Facebook about how to help young children who encounter scary things in the news:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. ~ Fred Rogers

Here’s a link to the whole web page from which the quote came.

This is part of why I don’t own a television:

The way that news is presented on television can be quite confusing for a young child. The same video segment may be shown over and over again through the day, as if each showing was a different event. Someone who has died turns up alive and then dies again and again. Children often become very anxious since they don’t understand much about videotape replays, closeups, and camera angles. Any televised danger seems close to home to them because the tragic scenes are taking place on the TV set in their own living room. Children can’t tell the difference between what’s close and what’s far away, what’s real and what’s pretend, or what’s new and what’s re-run.

It’s not just children who become very anxious. Your consciousness is taking it in. Even though I’ve been an adult for a long time, and I’ve been conditioned about what “reality” is, watching the events of 9-11 really brought it home to me: the way “the news” televises tragedies is traumatizing. So many replays, so much repetition to get all “the facts” right, so much effort to keep people glued to their sets, feeling horrified and helpless, while taking in those images and words over and over again.

Turn off the news. Go for a walk. Pray and take care of yourself and your family. And look for solutions.

One Facebook friend (Ginger Webb, whom I’ve never met but whose fabulous herbal products I buy and recommend) proposed doing five random acts of kindness for each person who died.

I like that. I so wish that our government would enact gun control laws and make treatment for PTSD free and accessible for everyone. We do not need to be as highly armed as we are, and we’re not doing a very good job keeping guns out of the hands of the emotionally disturbed.

It will take time and effort for that to happen, and it may not, judging by the past. This time could be different, though. Please let your voice be heard.

Meanwhile, put some good into the world. You never know how stressed or hurting someone might really be, and how meaningful your unexpected kindness could be.

Intuition, microexpressions, hypervigilance, and trauma

When Intuition Is A Curse.

When people come into my office and tell me, very early in a conversation, that they are ‘intuitive’ and ‘can see into people’ I often wonder if they have had trauma. The longer I do this for a living the more I realize that some of us developed our insights into humanity as a protection mechanism. It makes sense. People who have experienced trauma tend to be more intuitive. We’ve experienced hypervigilance where we are constantly scanning our environments for signs of danger.

Have you experienced trauma, and are you intuitive, psychic, an empath, and/or clairvoyant? I’m curious.

This article reminded me that early this year, I witnessed some microexpressions, when emotions that someone is trying to suppress appear briefly on their face. Paul Ekman has done a lot of research into them. The TV show Lie To Me is based on his work. Reading them may have a lot to do with intuition.

I noticed hatred and contempt appear fleetingly behind a mask of apparent calm and reason on the face of a man I had dated for a couple of months as he spoke to me. He was unaware of them or that I could read them.

It was disturbing. I could not think of anything I had done to merit those emotions, and I felt hurt and puzzled. From that and other puzzling oddities, I suspected he’d been emotionally abused. He hadn’t mentioned it to me, but his behavior had been strange at times. A mutual friend confirmed years of past abuse. Apparently I had unknowingly done something that triggered his memories of being abused.

After learning of the history of abuse, I felt compassion for him. I also realized I didn’t want to be alone with him in private again.

Later he got his wires crossed again, in public, right in front of me. Curious (because he still hadn’t told me anything about the abuse), I then had a clairvoyant experience in which I “saw” that he’d been the subject of horrific psychotic rage repeatedly for years.

I had a major fight-or-flight reaction.

I rode it out with mindfulness as much as I could. Once the biochemical cascade was underway, there was not much to do but wait for it to fully subside and do what I could to recover my equilibrium. It took a few months for that to happen. I watched my fearful, self-protective mind at work, influenced by deep stress. It wasn’t pretty, and I’m glad it’s over. Although unpleasant and difficult, being able to witness my own experience was useful.

I learned a lot from this. A main take-away is that if I am relating to someone who’s been traumatized, I want them to be up-front about it pretty quickly, if they have any awareness of it at all. It leaks out anyway if they try to hide it, and they come across as untrustworthy.

Over 60 percent of Americans experience trauma at least once in their lives. It’s not that uncommon.

I gained compassion for my past traumatized self, before I had done any healing work. I didn’t know myself well enough to understand how much trauma had shaped me.

During that time of riding out the biochemical cascade, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. I am grateful for the healers who helped me recover, including the healer inside me.

I felt compassion for him. He was admittedly clueless, dissociated, and good at compartmentalizing. In my opinion, he seriously needed professional help.

I grokked his disappointment at leaving an abuser with hopes for a better future, waiting six months after divorcing and taking a course on building new relationships before dating, only to discover that the abuse had made him both easily disturbed by those with positive intentions and disturbing to them.

It was sobering to refer someone I dated to therapy. In hindsight, I think I showed him how a fairly healthy person responds when they are dating or befriending someone who shows signs and symptoms of mental illness, who is either hiding it, discounting its seriousness, or so injured he doesn’t even know he has a mental illness.

I let him know that I knew, told him that I would not have dated him had I known, and I ended our relationship until such time as he has recovered, urging him to get professional help to that end.

It seems probable that he needed to know how someone would do this. But damn, that was really freaky.

May his cluelessness become curiosity.

May his compartmentalization become wholeness and expansion.

May his fears become worthy of reconditioning.

May his dissociation occur only when useful, and may he learn to live in partnership with his body.

May his awareness include an appreciation of the gifts of the unconscious mind and a more conscious partnership with it.

May his contempt, hatred, terror, shame, and secrecy be transformed and his burden be lessened.

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” ~ Joseph Campbell

And after I think of him and send energetic blessings his way, I dissolve all thoughts and images of him and bring my attention back to my own body and experience peace and gratitude.

But was my intuition working because I’ve experienced trauma myself and learned to be observant? I don’t know. Here’s a possibility: Apparently some long-time meditators are also adept at reading microexpressions.

From studies with thousands of people, Ekman knew that people who do better at recognizing these subtle emotions are more open to new experience, more interested and more curious about things in general. They are also conscientious — reliable and efficient. “So I had expected that many years of meditative experience” — which requires both openness and conscientiousness — “might make them do better on this ability,” Ekman explains. Thus he had wondered if Öser might be better able to identify these ultra-fast emotions than other people are.

Then Ekman announced his results: both Öser and another advanced Western meditator Ekman had been able to test were two standard deviations above the norm in recognizing these super-quick facial signals of emotion, albeit the two subjects differed in the emotions they were best at perceiving. They both scored far higher than any of the five thousand other people tested. “They do better than policemen, lawyers, psychiatrists, customs officials, judges — even Secret Service agents,” the group that had previously distinguished itself as most accurate.

“It appears that one benefit of some part of the life paths these two have followed is becoming more aware of these subtle signs of how other people feel,” Ekman notes. Öser had super-acuity for the fleeting signs of fear, contempt and anger. The other meditator — a Westerner who, like Öser, had done a total of two to three years in solitary retreats in the Tibetan tradition — was similarly outstanding, though on a different range of emotions: happiness, sadness, disgust and, like Öser, anger.

I’m not nearly as experienced at meditation as these men, but even at my level, meditation can slow the experience of time down until there is only the present moment, which becomes vast, and awareness simply expands.

If you can experience time like that, microexpressions would be much more apparent.

That’s one explanation. Or maybe I’ve just been around the block a few times. Or maybe these long-time meditators had also trauma in their histories. The article didn’t say.

I do know that for years, I’ve been interested in people-reading, and I imagine at some point early on, there was a connection in discerning whether they were safe to be around. But once you realize someone is not out to murder you, there’s still a lot to learn. We humans are pretty fascinating and diverse.

If you want to learn more about reading microexpressions, Paul Ekman (link above) has a newsletter and online training.

Immobilization/shutdown/dissociation/frozen, a trauma response built into the nervous system

Back in March 2012, I posted that I had started reading Peter A. Levine’s latest book, In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. My post included excerpts from Levine’s description of being hit by a car and his experience afterwards.

His experience serves as a useful model for being and staying present through trauma and recovery. He knew how to allow his body and emotions to process naturally so that he did not get stuck in a traumatic state (i.e., PTSD).

Well, I am still reading that book. It’s very, very rich. Some parts are rather scientific. I’m taking my time to really understand it.

Levine uses polyvagal theory (I just posted an interview with Stephen Porges, who came up with the theory) to explain the states that people experience and can get stuck in from traumatic experiences.

Because Somatic Experiencing Practitioners and other therapists (as well as astute loved ones) who are helping someone recovery from trauma need to know which layer of the nervous system is dominant at any given time in a traumatized individual, I am going to describe them.

First, the primary job of our nervous system is to protect us. We have senses that alert us to danger. We may react to a perception of a threat in our bodies before it ever becomes conscious in the mind. That’s because the autonomic nervous system (which is not under our control) is involved when trauma occurs. We react instinctually.

This is good to know. It means that your trauma reactions are automatic, not something you can control, so there’s no need to feel shame or blame yourself. You were doing the best you could.

There are two defensive states that occur when encountering trauma: immobility/dissociation/shutdown (freeze) and sympathetic hyperarousal (fight or flight).

I’m going to write about them in separate posts to avoid being too lengthy.

The more primitive nervous system state is immobility. (Primitive in that evolutionarily it comes from jawless and cartilaginous fish and precedes sympathetic hyperarousal.)

It is triggered when a person perceives that death is imminent, from an external or internal threat.

Levine also uses the terms dissociation, shutdown, and freeze/frozen to describe this state. Note: If you’re an NLPer, dissociation means the separation of components of subjective experience from one another, such as cutting off the emotional component of a memory and simply remembering the visual and/or auditory components. (Source: Encyclopedia of NLP)

Keep in mind that Levine is talking about dissociation as an involuntary post-traumatic physiological state that trauma victims can sometimes get stuck with. There may be some overlap. According to Levine, symptoms of being in this state include frequent spaciness, unreality, depersonalization, and/or various somatic and health complaints, including gastrointestinal problems, migraines, some forms of asthma, persistent pain, chronic fatigue, and general disengagement from life.

Levine notes:

This last-ditch immobilization system is meant to function acutely and only for brief periods. When chronically activated, humans become trapped in the gray limbo of nonexistence, where one is neither really living nor actually dying. The therapist’s first job in reaching such shut down clients is to help them mobilize their energy: to help them, first, to become aware of their physiological paralysis and shutdown in a way that normalizes it, and to shift toward (sympathetic) mobilization. 

The more primitive the operative system, the more power it has to take over the overall function of the organism. It does this by inhibiting the more recent and more refined neurological subsystems, effectively preventing them from functioning. In particular, the immobilization system all but completely suppresses the social engagement/attachment system.

Highly traumatized and chronically neglected or abused individuals are dominated by the immobilization/shutdown system.

Signs that someone is operating from this state include:

  • constricted pupils
  • fixed or spaced-out eyes
  • collapsed posture (slumped forward)
  • markedly reduced breathing
  • abrupt slowing and feebleness of the heart rate
  • skin color that is a pasty, sickly white or even gray in color

Brainwise, volunteers in the immobility state exhibited a decrease in activity of the insula and the cingulate cortex. In one study, about 30% of PTSD sufferers experienced immobility and 70% experienced hyperarousal, with a dramatic increase of activity in these brain areas. Most traumatized people exhibit some symptoms from both nervous systems, Levine says.

I feel the deepest compassion for people in this state, because I have experienced it myself: the spaciness, depersonalization, sense of unreality, and passive, disengaged attitude toward life. It was many years ago. If I could, I would reach back in time to that injured woman and give her resources she just didn’t have back then.

I feel so grateful for the trauma recovery work I’ve done, both with a therapist and on my own. I haven’t experienced immobilization for years, except briefly.

Next up: sympathetic hyperarousal/fight or flight.

An interview with Stephen Porges: polyvagal theory, or how the nervous system is affected in autism, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, and trauma

Nexus, Colorado’s Holistic Health and Spirituality Journal.

This interview with Dr. Stephen Porges, whose career is based on understanding the evolution of the human nervous system, outlines some of the basics of polyvagal theory.

This theory is being tested in trauma recovery sessions. It’s exciting because it helps explain how and why people freeze or experience fight-flight reactions in response to trauma — and the route back to normal, healthy functioning, no matter how long ago the trauma occurred or how often it happened.

Polyvagal theory is increasingly becoming part of the training of bodyworkers, therapists, and educators. In a future post, I will describe how to tell which nervous system (freeze, fight or flight, or parasympathetic) is dominant at any given moment.

This theory is based on an in-depth understanding of the vagus nerve, also known as the 10th cranial nerve, which wanders (the Latin word vagus means wandering, like vagabond and vagrant) from the brain stem down through the body, affecting the face, heart, lungs, and gut.

The brain evolved hierarchically in vertebrates, and the neural circuits of the older nervous systems are still present, accessed hierarchically.

RD: So one thing happens then another thing happens then another thing?

SP: Right. This influences how we react to the world. The hierarchy is composed of three neural circuits. One circuit may override another. We usually react with our newest system, and if that doesn’t work, we try an older one, then the oldest. We start with our most modern systems, and work our way backward.

So polyvagal theory considers the evolution of the autonomic nervous system and its organization; but it also emphasizes that the vagal system is not a single unit, as we have long thought. There are actually two vagal systems, an old one and a new one. That’s where the name polyvagal comes from.

The final, or newest stage, which is unique to mammals, is characterized by a vagus having myelinated pathways. The vagus is the major nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. There are two major branches. The most recent is myelinated and is linked to the cranial nerves that control facial expression and vocalization.

Here’s how it works in action:

SP: Let’s say you’re a therapist or a parent or a teacher, and one of your clients, students or children’s faces is flat, with no facial expression. The face has no muscle tone, the eyelids droop and gaze averts. It is highly likely that individual will also have auditory hypersensitivities and difficulty regulating his or her bodily state. These are common features of several psychiatric disorders, including anxiety disorders, borderline personality, bipolar, autism and hyperactivity. The neural system that regulates both bodily state and the muscles of the face goes off-line. Thus, people with these disorders often lack affect in their faces and are jittery, because their nervous system is not providing information to calm them down.

RD: How will polyvagal theory change treatment options for people with these disorders?

SP: Once we understand the mechanisms mediating the disorder, there will be ways to treat it. For example, you would no longer say “sit still” or punish a person because they can’t sit still. You would never say, “Why aren’t you smiling?” or “Try to listen better” or “Look in my eyes,” when these behaviors are absent. Often treatment programs attempt to teach clients to make eye contact. But teaching someone to make eye contact is often virtually impossible when the individual has a disorder, such as autism or bipolar disorder, because the neural system controlling spontaneous eye gaze is turned off. This newer, social engagement system can only be expressed when the nervous system detects the environment as safe.

There’s much more fascinating information you can read by clicking the link at the top of this post.

My trauma recovery manifesto: the deepest compassion, the strongest boundary

I originally posted this earlier this year. Yesterday I received this comment:

Well said! I’m a clergy person with PTSD who can handle almost any trauma while in the collar thanks to good training and very clear boundaries, but when traumatized people insinuate themselves into my personal life, it sends me into a tailspin even after decades of hard therapeutic work. Caring does not involve being receptacles for others’ misery. Setting limits and sending them for the help they need is the very best thing any of us can do.

It inspired me to repost the original. I feel the same way as the commenter: Tell me up front you’re traumatized, and our relationship will be good. I will set the boundaries I need to keep it healthy.

If you fail to disclose your trauma, we’re probably not going to have a healthy, trusting relationship, and when I find out, it could send me back to a place I worked really, really hard to get out of. I don’t take kindly to that. It’s irresponsible and very unfriendly on your part.

Traumatic symptoms have a way of showing up in behaviors beyond your control until you face and heal the trauma, and specialized professional help (Somatic Experiencing and the like) is almost always required. I guessed you had been emotionally abused from your behavior because you were so weird. I just didn’t know the extent of it until I had that clairvoyant experience after seeing you be triggered that sent me into major fight-or-flight mode. The truth will come out.

I empathize with where you are. If you ever want to be a real friend to me, and not an unhealthy co-dependent, I need you to actively work on your recovery and “get on the other side of it”. I know it probably seems harsh, but I know whereof I’m speaking, having been there myself. You getting well is the best thing you can do for yourself and the quality of your future relationships. I wish you well.

~

Occasionally people who have been traumatized have gravitated to me because I’m open about having experienced a serious trauma and (mostly) recovered, but they don’t seem to realize how deeply their past still affects them. They haven’t done any trauma recovery work, and they show up in my life.

I believe they show up because their unconscious is seeking healing. Or perhaps angels bring these people to me so they can see for themselves that recovery is possible. You know, I don’t mind being a role model for recovery from trauma. I’ve come a long way in 10 years. I’ve worked at it.

It’s not like traumatized people wear signs stating that. The sudden discovery that a friend or love interest has been traumatized can create a huge amount of distress for me. Even though in hindsight, their craziness now makes more sense (“oh, of course, that weird behavior was a trauma response”), it can still really be a shock.

So I just want to put this message out there:

If you’ve been traumatized and feel attracted to me because I’m open about having experienced trauma and having done a lot of work on my recovery, first of all, please tell me clearly and up front (or as soon as you realize) that you’ve been traumatized, emotionally abused, get triggered, have flashbacks or nightmares, are shell-shocked, or whatever history or symptoms are affecting you.

There’s no shame in it — you didn’t ask for it. I’d rather know than not, and I just might be able to proceed with appropriate boundaries. I will help you find good help and support you emotionally — in a way that is healthy and not co-dependent.

If that’s what draws you to me, just own it. Do not be asking me out on dates and withholding information about your untreated trauma. That’s creepy. You may naively think you can hide it, but it seriously disregulates your autonomic nervous system, which means it’s beyond your control. Your trauma-related weird behavior will show up in your most intimate relationships sooner or later.

Having untreated trauma is like ignoring an elephant in your living room whose shit is piling up. It will stay there until you see what it’s doing to your life and determine to get it out of your house. Which takes help.

Secondly, if you’re not getting professional help, please do that — get professional help. And let me know that too, because I’m going to worry about you if you don’t, and I’d rather be happy than worried.

Please do not look to me to help you beyond being a cheerleader for your recovery work. I am a blogger who’s open about having experienced trauma and having done a lot of work on recovery. This blog (read About me, and do a search on PTSD or trauma to find related posts) describes some of my recovery experiences. Please feel free to ask me about them or try them yourself.

There is absolutely no need for you to just show me your wounds without any verbal warning. Seeing you suddenly be triggered by your past trauma triggered painful memories of my long struggle of not knowing I had PTSD and finding out, and then spending months processing, healing, and putting my life back together in a new, healthier way.

Your behavior freaked me out badly. It took acupuncture, herbs, and therapeutic assistance to start to get over it (at my expense, I might add, which you have ignored, which also makes me think less of you), and I really don’t trust you now.

Recovery from trauma doesn’t mean being bulletproof. It means being more embodied, emotionally present, and energetically open than before recovery, while still being an ordinary person who cannot read minds. I have more compassion now and am more of a whole person, and I need to set clear boundaries to take care of myself. I do know the difference between friendship and co-dependence.

It breaks my heart more than you can imagine that the innocent gesture I made triggered fear in you. It’s not anything I take casually or lightly. It’s emotionally disturbing to witness someone with their wires crossed, whose body mind mistakes someone who has never emotionally abused them with someone who did.

With help, you can heal your poor damaged nervous system and experience peace and stability and aliveness in your life. I am recommending Somatic Experiencing to people these days.

Please find your way to help. I wish you well.

So this is for everyone: if you know that I have had PTSD and you have had untreated trauma in your life, and you come around seeking a relationship, please tell me up front, do your own recovery work (I’ll be rooting for you), and get yourself in decent emotional and relational shape before you seek friendship or dating from me, for both our sakes.

I look forward to talking with the healthy you.

Comment on “Trauma release heavy heart”

Sometimes a reader responds to a blog post that appeared a long while ago. Today I received a comment on Trauma release heavy heart, originally published on October 4, 2010. I wrote that post after discovering that someone had used those words as a search term and landed on my blog.

The beauty of using search engines is that content can be “new to you” years after it was first written.

So for those who subscribe and read posts as I post them, here’s a recap of that post, if you don’t want to click the link above and read the original (I know, I know, it takes time):

I mentioned that heartbreak can feel traumatic, that time and the kindness of others helps, and that meditation can expand your sense of yourself beyond the heaviness of your heart.

I did bring up some positive things about having a heavy heart: it means your heart center is active and alive, which isn’t true of everyone. Some people have very closed-off hearts.

I mentioned doing EFT, using a homeopathic remedy, crying, and being kind to someone who needs it.

Rubyinparadise commented today:

Lovely post. :) I was just Googling David Berceli’s work and found your blog. I am a restorative yoga teacher, and I am also very interested in the subjects of Radical Acceptance (Tara Brach), vipassana meditation, psoas release, PTSD recovery, inner child healing, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (Marsha Linehan). DBT teaches the skills of emotion regulation, mindfulness, distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness. It is used for people with PTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder, and those who simply struggle with such skills, perhaps due to early childhood trauma, chemical imbalance, a highly sensitive nature, or all of the above. I keep stumbling across references to EFT as well, but I haven’t explored that as of yet.

I’m responding to her directly, as I do for most comments, but I think it’s good to share that here is someone else who is interested in how to heal trauma and is exploring various techniques.

I myself am not familiar with radical acceptance, inner child healing, or DBT. I’m not sure about psoas technique. I know the psoas is the key “fight or flight” muscle — I know how to palpate it but would love to learn a release technique beyond the TREs.

I would like to note that sometimes I struggle with how much I really want to put my energy into trauma healing — learning about it for my own healing and potentially to work with others. Does it retraumatize me? I’m looking at that. I’d like for it not to. I get tired of trauma, recovery, healing, and so on.

I was told by hand analyst Rich Unger that my hand says that I am a spiritual teacher in this area, working with people who have been traumatized. Sometimes I feel drawn to it, and sometimes not. Sometimes I just want everything to do with trauma to be over and done with. I want to be well — and so I am, most of the time.

Right now, I feel like occasional writing is enough, providing a healing story for others who may be less far along on their healing path. It helps to have models who can let you know that recovery is possible, because if it’s possible for me, it’s possible for you.

I’d love to hear others comment with stories on their own trauma recovery and healing.

And… I have just ordered a book of yoga poses for trauma recovery. (I bet they involve the psoas.)

I want to work with my therapist/shaman/friend on how I can learn to not be triggered by other people’s traumas. I don’t even know if that is possible. Maybe we just scream together. But I do believe I can benefit from some changework.

It seems that there were some rapid gains from focusing my attention for the first time on processing and integrating my childhood trauma, but after the first couple of years, or even the first nine months, the breakthroughs haven’t come as quickly or been as painless.

I’m grateful that I have a real life now that includes stability, connection, health, fun, growth, reflection, and being grounded. It’s home base. When I foray from it into trauma (whether voluntarily or involuntarily), I have a sweet, safe place to return to.

Not everyone has that. If I could give anyone just that, I would.

More about my trauma recovery process (my hero’s journey)

Whew. I am going through a period in which I am feeling rather slammed — commuting several days a week 30 miles for a temp job, pet- and house-sitting, running errands after work, trying to do at least a couple of massages a week, and get in a little bit of fun and socializing. I’m squeezing time to get this post done! Oh, the life of a blogger….

I was talking with some friends over dinner last night, and the topic turned to trauma recovery. I want to write more about what that process involved for me.

I don’t believe that everyone else’s recovery process is like mine. Each person’s is different. Some might be shorter or longer, depending on the level of commitment to healing, the quality of help available, how much/how long ago/how suppressed, your self-discovery abilities, and your available time.

I did the majority of my processing over about two years, with the first nine months being most intense. The trauma happened when I was a child, occurred once, and was suppressed for many years. I had access to a psychotherapist for the first six months, and she was not a specialist in trauma recovery. I ended up doing a lot of work on my own using journaling and reflection and talking to people, and I did the most intense work during a three-month period when I was between jobs when I could put all my resources into it.

Of course, the healing process continues even now, but it’s on an as-needed basis.

Today recovery would be faster because the tools have gotten better and I know more now.

During that recovery period, trauma processing was my biggest commitment, besides working to put a roof over my head. Which was good, because trauma recovery requires self-absorption. I had neglected developing myself in this way for years, in hindsight, and I was motivated because I did not want to have PTSD. I was engaged in the recovery process, sometimes emotionally exhausted from putting the pieces back together. It was gratifying and satisfying inner work.

My social life was sporadic while processing. I benefitted greatly from the support of my friends and family, who were tolerant that I was actively involved in remembering and reframing my past. I am still deeply grateful for this. They put up with hearing me say “When Margaret was murdered…” a lot when the revelations were coming quickly and thickly, and only one person told me she was tired of hearing about it. Bless her heart.

I was not interested in dating and would not have considered it during this time. It never crossed my mind that a prospective partner would have been interested in me while I was integrating some emotionally gruesome memories, and if one had been, it would not have been a balanced, healthy relationship. I simply didn’t have the energy to put into a new relationship while I was actively recovering from trauma, and I needed more from others than I could give back.

After, yes. I was a lot juicier after!

During those two years, I accessed a lot of suppressed memories, brought them into consciousness, re-felt the emotions, and sorted these memories into some kind of coherent chronological order, which people traumatized as children often must do. I reframed my life.

I filled well over a dozen composition books with my journaling, including writing down the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had. Those dreams kept me on the path, told me I was moving in the right direction even though sometimes it was difficult. They promised me light at the end of the tunnel, and so it came to pass.

I learned how to tell my story and include not just the dissociated facts, but also my actual experience — what my tender young self saw, heard, and felt. Some of the “felt” part of my experience, and some of what I saw and heard, had been missing from my story before.

I read a lot about trauma recovery and PTSD. The most significant book was Waking the Tiger. I’ve written about this book several times. I understood for the first time that trauma affects the body and mind, the heart and spirit, that humans really are animals no matter how we try to elevate or distance ourselves above the other species, and recovery must include releasing energy blocks in the body as well as cognitive work, social/relational/emotional work, and spiritual work.

I’ve mentioned before that I spontaneously released the trauma from my body one day after reading most of the book.

During recovery, I gained perspective that I had not had before. My view of myself and my life became larger than it had ever been. I understood myself in a new way. I made more sense to me.

I remember sitting on my front porch, journaling and experiencing what I call “brain clicks”. The best way I can describe them is that I was remaking my map of the world, especially updating the parts that had stayed frozen from when I was 11. I literally felt something happen inside my head that was like reality clicking into place. Maybe it was me getting congruent.

I contacted people who’d known my family back then and listened to what they had to say. It was good to reconnect and get a bigger picture of how it affected them.

I planned and held a long-overdue celebration of my sister’s short life.

One of the most momentous days in my life was the day I learned the name of the murderer and that he (as of 2002) was living in Austin, not that far from where I’d lived for 10 years. We could have stood in line next to each other at the grocery store and never known our relationship.

I grew up that day. I developed compassion, not just for him, but for myself. Neither of us were any longer the people we were back then, me at 11, him at 15. I understood that he’s had to live with knowing his young self murdered a little girl for all these years and devastated her family. Not an easy burden to carry. I wish him peace.

All this makes it sound like I undertook a deliberate process. That would be wrong (except for the celebration). Traumatic memories began erupting, I went to therapy, got a diagnosis and a start on processing, and from then on, I just surrendered to the process. I couldn’t have stopped it if I had wanted to, and it was very compelling to have those great dreams, to recover lost memories (even if unpleasant) and know more of my story, to experience those brain clicks, and most of all, to become more and more present, once my past was in order.

When I committed to recovering from my childhood trauma, I made a commitment to my health, which is still in place.

It’s not that I’m the healthiest person around. I am fairly healthy, although I can still be triggered, especially when stressed and presented with an unexpected negative surprise. I am committed to move in the direction of health as best I can, making the happier, healthier choice when I know what that is. Happier does not always mean doing cartwheels, either. It can mean letting go, and it can mean allowing the big picture to unfold over immediate gratification.

I am not a great person but a human one. I feel stupid after I realize I’ve been triggered. Embarrassed. Foolish. You are not that person.

Sometimes I’m at a loss as to what to do, if anything. I just wait, listening and looking for a clear sign. Sometimes needing a lot of space does not mean total disconnection.

I send support to everyone who finds the courage to face themselves and rewrite their story in this way. It requires great valor. It’s truly a hero’s journey, and I recommend learning as much about the hero’s journey as you can, through books and film and reflection on your own journey. Joseph Campbell, Carol Pearson, and Stephen Gilligan provide enlightenment about this process.

You are the hero of your own life, and I honor your path and your courage.

Namaste.